“I took a bit of an usual route,” says Riason Naidoo, who was appointed as the first black director of the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 2009. “I’m trained as an artist – as a painter, but I’ve done a few different things in the art world after graduating.”
Naidoo was in Grahamstown to give a presentation titled “Decolonising the South African National Gallery”, organized by UHURU, in which he discussed the 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective exhibition that he curated, and the contentious conversations which surrounded it.
The exhibition showcased a century of spectacular South African art at a time when Cape Town was teeming with tourists, foreigners and the hype of the FIFA World Cup. The exhibited works were retrieved from the gallery’s collection and borrowed from 48 other collections, and filled the entire museum – including the spaces where Sir Abe Bailey’s collection of 19th Century British sporting art had been on permanent display since 1947. In its entirety, the exhibition reflected a diverse and multicultural society shaped by the racialised sociopolitical powers of the past century. Exhibited artists included JH Pierneef, Jane Alexander, Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser, Willie Bester, Gerard Sekoto, and more contemporary artists such as Mary Sibande, Mikael Subotzky, Manfred Zylla, Zanele Muholi and Peter Clarke. Although visitor numbers increased by 67% while the exhibition was open, compared to the same time the previous year, many prominent art critics were horrified by the display.
The presentation raises questions about the elitist and narrow nature of art institutions in South Africa, where platforms and publicity are not afforded to particular communities of artists and, as a result, entire narratives and histories are excluded from public discourse.
In an interview the following day, Naidoo reveals that this is a problem he has been addressing since he was a student at Wits University, painting and curating exhibitions. After graduating with a BA (Fine Arts), Naidoo worked at the Durban Art Gallery, taught painting and drawing at Wits University before working for the French Institute, and then returned to Wits for his Masters.
“I wanted to get back into painting. So I registered for my Masters at Wits,” he says as we sit for coffee and discuss his experiences in the South African art world. “But while I was doing my MA, I was assisting a veteran photographer to put together his first public exhibition of his work.”
The photographer was Ranjith Kally, and although he had been taking photographs for 60 years, he had never had a solo exhibition.
“I’d been trying to help him get an exhibition for five years, but nobody was interested. Finally, I approached Linda Givon at the Goodman Gallery with just a sample of his photos and she gave him his first big break. That was the first exhibition I curated. It got a lot of exposure, a lot of media coverage, and many o fthe public and corporate collections bought his work, including the South African National Gallery.”
In addition to a retrospective at the Durban Art Gallery that followed, the exhibition then travelled to Mali, Austria, Spain and France.
“The intention with my Masters was to go back to making my own artwork, but it seemed to be more important to get these stories told,” says Naidoo, who curated six exhibitions on Ranjith Kally’s photos while he was a Masters student. While curating these exhibitions that uncovered marginalised histories, Naidoo also discovered the Drum archive, and proceeded to do his Masters on a particular history embedded in the magazine.
“I looked at an alternative Indian identity in Drum, as opposed to the identity the state portrayed. It revealed ‘Indian’ gangsters, jazz clubs, footballers, boxers and mixed marriages – stuff that was hidden from the general public.”
Naidoo curated the exhibition, which travelled to Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, and subsequently produced a book about the exhibition and a documentary about the people in the photographs too. Through various mediums, Naidoo was accessing and sharing the narratives that made up his community.
“I studied art, so I knew what was out there, what was still hidden or repressed, and still needed to be uncovered. I think it related a lot to my own experience of knowing a certain history but seeing it underrepresented or misrepresented. I wanted to set the record straight and I think it is also very important for people to tell the stories of their communities from the inside.”
Naidoo set out to achieve this through his painting and curating exhibitions.
“[My painting] was quite meaningful for me. It dealt with where I grew up and also about this communal identity around me,” says Naidoo, who did a large painting of a bunny chow for his first solo exhibition. Inspired by Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and using hardware materials like enamel paint and a pegboard, Naidoo aimed to take art out of elite forums to reach larger audiences. But at the same time that he was revealing an untold South African story, he had limited exposure to other South African artists – especially black artists.
“There weren’t many black artists who we had heard of growing up,” he says. “On the one hand, there were very limited established platforms for black artists to show their work. I think if they’d shown their work in quite high profile places, it might have gotten more prominence. People would have seen it and it would have been written about. But that’s also no guarantee – one could also get negative responses at those high profile venues, like we’ve seen before.”
Indeed, it seems that high profile venues remain inaccessible and imbedded with ideologies that are not aligned with the diverse nature of South African society.
“The mechanisms are still very white. I’m talking about the commercial galleries. I’m talking about art critics. I’m talking about the art collectors,” says Naidoo. “But at the same time we’re seeing more and more black artists coming through. Artists like Ndikhumbule Ngqinambi or Zanele Muholi and Nandipha Mntambo and those represented through the Stevenson Gallery and the Goodman Gallery, like the Essop twins for example, who won the Standard Bank Young Artist award in 2014.”
“So there are definitely more young black artists coming through the ranks, but I think the mechanisms that control the artworld still remain predominately white, with the exception of Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg and now in Cape Town as well.”
Despite the successful emergence of a new generation of South African artists, the next generation of curators, critics and artists are in danger of receiving limited, if any, art education.
“It’s a huge crisis right now. It hasn’t changed since the days of apartheid. Most of the schools in the townships still don’t have access to art education. That needs to be addressed and government needs to pay attention to that.”
“Part of the problem is that most of the people who are in prominent positions in government went through those systems without having art education and, I think, were never introduced to the importance of art and how it can play an important role in our lives. It needs someone in a prominent position, like a Minister of Education or somebody who advises the minister to say, ‘Look, it’s very important for kids in school in the townships to have access to art education’. It’s a very necessary and important part of a holistic education.”
Indeed, Naidoo believes that art is not only essential to education, but an important part of being human.
“I think everybody should do art. It has numerous and multiple results,” he says. “On a very basic level, it is a form of expression, like writing or playing a musical instrument, or even listening to a piece of music. It is essential for every human being because art has the power to affect you. You know it’s good art when it evokes some kind of reaction out of you.”
“On a more personal level, I think it’s quite therapeutic. But for artists, it’s not only about that – they also have special talents in this field. Art should be an important part of everyone’s life, like books. Everybody should be able to read books, and in the same way, everybody should make art and try to understand it.”
Although everybody should make art, not everything is art according to Naidoo. As we discuss the Marikana graffiti that has appeared on university campuses across the country, he points to the differences and parallels between graffiti and art.
“A question we need to ask ourselves is, ‘What is the difference between graffiti and art?’ and ‘Where do we draw the line between what is graffiti and what is art?’”
“There are similarities when both are critiquing the institutions from the inside. But then again there are several ways to do this; one by rejecting institutions and their validation by working outside of it, where you don’t ask for permission.”
“Artists have done that before – the Mexican muralists in the 1920’s developed an art that spoke of the experiences of the workers. Diego Rivera and those guys were making art in public spaces. I wouldn’t call that graffiti; although you can get sophisticated forms of graffiti too – it depends on the merits of each case. It was significant for where it was displayed, who it depicted and because of who it wanted to appeal to.”
“I think what the students are doing here at Rhodes is making a statement,” he says, “It’s a brave statement to make, but like everything it carries its own repercussions to see it through to the end.”
Whatever the medium, content or venue, Naidoo clearly sees art as integral to identity, community and public conversation. In this way, it seems that critics, curators, artists and audiences are all responsible for the histories that are written, narrated and shared through art. Evidently, South Africa’s artworld needs to open spaces for artists and audiences who are willing to reconcile violent histories and write a new future – that of a society that is at peace with its past, and celebrates the diversity of our present.